Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
Not many generations ago, children caught favoring the left hand were often forced — sometimes painfully so — into using their right hand instead. Some psychologists had associated left-handedness with contrariness, perversity, clumsiness, and, farther back in time, even pathological behavior and criminality. The Devil himself was believed to be a southpaw, and during the Inquisition, a woman could be accused of being a witch just for being left-handed.
Our hostility against things on the left goes back to antiquity: Omens that were viewed on the left — say, a flock of birds taking flight — were considered inauspicious or signs of misfortune. In Latin, such bad omens were sinister, meaning “left” or “on the left,” and from this early augural start, the word sinister over time gained the sense of “harmful” and, eventually in English, “evil.”
The opposite of the Latin sinister is dexter “situated on the right.” Because most people did better work with their right hand, dexter also developed the sense of “skillful.” In the 16th and 17th centuries, this “skillfulness” found its way into the English language as dexterity and dexterous, both etymologically referring to being right-handed.
Tacking on the prefix ambi- (“both”) gives us ambidextrous, meaning “having equal facility with the left and right hand” but literally translating to “having two right hands.”
The right side has long been considered the stronger or more important side. According to the Bible, for example, Christ sits at the right hand of God. The word right itself dates back to Old English riht, but it didn’t originally indicate handedness. It meant “straight (both literally and metaphorically), proper, good” — hence righteous.
Because most people were stronger and more agile with one hand, that became the “proper” hand for doing things, and therefore the right hand. That lexical shift from “proper, stronger hand” to “hand on the opposite side from the heart” didn’t occur until the 13th century. The other hand then became the left, which probably comes from an Old English dialect word that means “weak.”
So, according to our language, left-handedness is weak and evil and right-handedness is good and strong. It’s no wonder, then, that for so long southpaws were pressured — or forced — to conform to a right-handed world. It wasn’t until the neurological and anatomical studies of the mid-19th century that the scientific community even gave much consideration to the natural forces that govern handedness. And even then, it took another century before left-handers started gaining wider acceptance in civilization — in part because tools and equipment designed to be used left-handed was a profitable and previously untapped market.
While left-handedness today is no longer linked to moral turpitude or psychological disability (5 of our last 8 presidents were left-handed), its linguistic heritage lives on in our language — though thankfully (for us lefties), it seems to be fading away. Sure, one’s most important confidant might still be called a “right-hand man,” and someone who simply cannot dance still has “two left feet.” But on the other hand (see what I did there?), English speakers are now more likely to receive a “backhanded compliment” than the older “left-handed compliment.” And while in some languages a clumsy person might be accused of “having two left hands,” in English, you’re more likely to “be all thumbs.”
Featured image: Shutterstock.com
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